December 21, 2009

Fermat's Room

The Spanish film Fermat's Room was one I missed at the cinema when it came out. It intrigued me however. The basic premise is that four very bright mathematicians are invited by 'Fermat' out to a deserted warehouse in the countryside to solve the most fundemental mathematical problem ever set. One of them is an inventor. Another a mathematical genius who has solved Goldbach's theorem about prime numbers. The third and fourth have no specific accomplishments named in the film but both give off an aura of impenetrable intellectual power- we learn later that both of them are phenomenal chess players. All these characters are invited out into the midst of the countryside and come through a series of mathematical problems to sit in a room, waiting for 'Fermat'. All of them have been given the names of illustrious mathematicians- Pascal, Oliva, Hilbert and Galois. Fermat himself comes and leaves- and then the phone goes. It appears that they have minutes to solve certain puzzles and mathematical problems, every time a minute passes without them having solved a particular issue, the walls begin to close in. Slowly the group realise that they face impending doom and catastrophe- that even genius grows tired and that then they will be crushed to death.

I do not want to give away the reason that they are all there- nor the kinds of clues that you get through the film to that reason- suffice it to say that nothing is quite as it seems. The film succeeds in doing the first thing that any film like this has to do- it is full of suspense. I found it both exciting and stimulating. The scenario is psychologically terrifying- there is almost no blood spilt in this film, you do not see a dab of ketchup upon any character's face. Nor are there any moments where you see the supernatural. What the film does is make you imagine terror and fear- make you imagine the crushing of the group together. The acting is good as well with several veterans of Spanish film making their appearance. Lluis Homar is very good as Hilbert, playing a complicated part. Elena Ballesteros dominates the screen as Oliva and grapples with a character who slowly is revealed- humiliatingly is revealed as the film goes on. Santi Millan is also good as Pascal. The only one that did not perfectly convince me as a character was Alejo Sauras as Galois- too cocky and too shallow for his part, he is the only actor who did not convey enough depth to me to make me believe in his character. Consideration in one part of life often overlaps into consideration and deep thought about the rest of life- and whereas Galois seemed to think deeply about maths, he did not seem to think deeply about life.

That is a prejudice. In general though the film succeeds in its first objective- creating a narrative you want to stick with to find out what happens. But does it have anything more to it- or is it like Donnie Darko say, a good story dressed up in intellectual sophistication that ultimately means nothing. If we are looking for meaning, the first thing to emphasize is that Fermat's Room is not about mathematics- there is precious little here that is complicated mathematics and there is almost no discussion of the fascinating philosophy of maths- the ways that numbers reflect or do not reflect the real world. What Fermat's Room is about is mathematics- and in particular about approaches to mathematics. There are two issues here which are related which the film takes us through. The first is to do with the ways that mathematicians and intellectuals in general can end up thinking. Intellectual activity is naturally combative and competitive. Often whether in academia or outside, it takes the form of an argument, a dialectic process of investigation of the truth. This Socratic method can become bundled up with the egos of those involved- and this is as true in Fermat's Room as anywhere else. The second clash that happens within the film is between mathematics as a practical subject and as a theoretical subject. In a sense the clash is an illusion- consider Fractals for example. In a deeper sense though there is an issue: is truth important because it is true or because it is useful. If there is a truth that is useless but true- does it matter if we do not know it- it will still be true and our lives will not be changed by finding it out.

I'm not going to delve into the ways that the film answers or does not answer those issues- I think it is fairly obvious from my writing that the film argues against obsession and for utility- but without giving away the ending it is impossible for me to illustrate the ways it does so. This is a good effort- it is not flawless- and there are problems but three of the four central performances are wonderful and it will keep your attention for its entire course. This is the kind of horror film that I personally enjoy: psychologically stimulating, not gorily tiring.

(This is Gracchi again- incidentally I've been neglecting film posts recently through lots of pressure at work, but I'm hoping to get going on them again alongside everything else on the site)


James Higham said...

Mathematical high drama - I love it.